Friday, August 22, 2008

Bach's Glorious Phoebus & Pan!

I often mention my regret that my favorite composer, Bach, never gave us a “real” opera, and yet one of my all time favorite works of his is BWV 201, the Cantata “Der Streit Zwischen Phoebus & Pan” (“The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan”). It’s about as close to opera as Bach would get and gives a wonderful peak into what Bach, had his life gone in a different direction, might have given us more of. Here is may have gone and I just today received a recording that hitherto had been priced out of my league (paired with another cantata to create a 2 CD set costing well over 50 dollars). Well “Phoebus & Pan” has made it onto a single disc now and what a glorious, stunning, perfect performance this is.
Recorded in the mid 90’s it features the young Mathias Goerne as Phoebus and some of the most stunning Bachian baritone singing I have ever encountered. In the aria (No. 5) “Mit Verlangen drück ich deine zarten Wangen” Goerne sounds almost tenorial, with a completely distinctive timbre that has a nice German Lieder singer darkness to it – and yet that light and air breathe right through it like gauze. It is singing of such ineffable beauty, the lines shaped with skill and grace and perfectly matched with the excellent orchestra led by Helmuth Rilling. Had I known Goerne sounded like this in this recording ten years ago, I would’ve gladly broken down and purchased the set at its original price if only to have this aria. I’m only happy I've now lived long enough for this recording to enter my life.
Not to be too outdone, Dietrich Henschel’s turn at Pan is a pure delight and a couple of numbers after Phoebus’s glorious aria Pan gets an entirely different (almost Papageno-esque) comic aria.
Tmolus is a tenor unknown to me, Lothar (“of the Hill People?”) Odinius. He’s marvelous and his sweet, plangent tenor is well matched in his big aria with Bach’s melancholy, Oboe d’amore-tinged music.
Midas is the sweet-as-honey, bright voiced American tenor James Taylor (not THAT James Taylor!) also presenting a rather young presence in this recording. That sweetness well suits Bach’s melancholy Oboe d’amore-tinged music.
Sweetness is a key element at play throughout this recording and can even be used to describe the just slightly shrill soprano of Sibylla Rubens, as Momus, while alto, Ingeborg Danz’s brief, beautiful turn as Mercury is reason itself enough for bursting into joy.
Maestro Rilling leads with the proverbial iron fist/velvet glove combo allowing the natural velocity of Bach’s music to push forward while keeping a firm grip on everything: tempi, balance, dynamics and color. The chorus (with little to do outside of the bookending movements), is wonderful, more full bodied than most baroque choruses, yet full of style and verve.
The tiny photo of Goerne on the back cover shows the then 20-something year old baritone looking as though he could easily have still been a high school student.
With the never-ending explosion and rediscovery of so much baroque music and today’s penchant for creative pairings of odd-flavored works, it would be wonderful to see some enterprising company stage this beautiful, less than an hour long work.
I don’t know who may last have staged this beautiful work, but the Met gave it as part of one of their wilder double bills – Bach’s Phoebus - paired with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’or” - (how’s THAT for a wild night at the opera!) and an exciting "new" conductor (though not so new to most of its attendees), one Sir Thomas Beecham!
This recording I’m raving about is on the hänssler edition/bachakademie label and around $14.00. It’s worth every penny!

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